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The consummate roots band, the Wailing Souls may never have gained the international reputation of their compatriots, at least not at the height of the genre's popularity, but they did outlive most of them. Their very survival has been their greatest strength, that and their ability to diversify over time. Today they are one of the most popular live acts around and they continue to release provocative and popular albums. A roots band they may well be, but their history actually stretches back long before the birth of that genre, as far back as the heyday of ska. The Wailing Souls' story begins with Winston "Pipe" Matthews. As a youth living in Kingston in the early '60s, Matthews learned to sing at the feet of Joe Higgs. Higgs, although himself barely out of his teens, was already a veteran vocalist with a string of hits to his name, and coached up and coming talent in his tenement yard. His most famous protégés were, of course, the Wailers. Higgs' training stood Matthews in equally good stead and by 1963, the aspiring singer and his vocal group the Schoolboys had come to the attention of Prince Buster. The group cut a handful of singles for the producer over the next year, "Little Boy Blue" and "Dream Lover" included. In 1965, the Schoolboys folded, but Matthews was soon back with a new group, the Renegades. This vocal trio comprised Matthews, Lloyd "Bread" McDonald, and George "Buddy" Haye, both of whom were also alumni of Higgs' vocal classes. Initially, the group hooked up with guitarist Ernest Ranglin appearing on a number of singles with him, before they finally debuted on their own with "Lost Love." It was at this point that the trio came to the attention of Coxsonne Dodd and the Renegades embarked on a fruitful career at Studio One. Over the next three years, the group released a clutch of singles on this label. Their debut for Dodd was "Back Out With It," a fine effort, but it was a later cut, "Fire Coal Man," recorded to the rhythm of the Silverstones' hit "Burning in My Soul," that eventually had the biggest impact. Although a number of the Renegades' singles were local hits, the trio never really excited much attention elsewhere during their lifetime.
In 1968, Haye departed, in his place came two new singers, Oswald Downer and Norman Davis. Such a seismic shift of lineup prompted the group to totally cut ties with the past, and the they changed their moniker to the Wailing Souls. In many ways, though, the quartet merely picked up where the trio had left off and continued recording popular singles — "Thou Shall Not Steal," "Dungeon," and "Pack Your Things," included. Although only a handful are now recalled by fans from these earliest days, the group would re-record a number in later years under new titles, and these seminal re-cuts are still part of the group's most treasured canon. Amongst these are such classic songs as "Feel the Spirit" (originally released as "Soul and Power") and "Back Biter" ("You Should Have Known Better"). Studio One would eventually release two compilations of recordings from this period, The Wailing Souls and Soul and Power, which together wrap up most of the quartet's best work with Dodd. And while song titles would change in the future, back then the quartet was appearing under enough aliases to fill an FBI sheet. When the group recorded "Gold Digger for Lloyd Daley, the single was credited in the U.K. to Little Roys. Elsewhere, they appeared as Atarra, the Classics, and even Pipe & the Pipers. Apparently their was some concern in Britain that people might confuse the Wailing Souls with the Wailers. The Wailers themselves certainly didn't think so, and in 1970 the quartet moved to the Tuff Gong label. More crucial singles followed, including "Walk Walk Walk" and "Harbour Shark," all backed by the Tuff Gong All Stars of course, aka the Wailers themselves.
The group's career seemed to be on track, but in 1974, the Wailing Souls suddenly underwent a swift series of cataclysmic lineup shifts. Davis and Downer both departed, with former Renegade Hayes and former vocal teacher Higgs taking their place. Higgs' stay was short-lived, however, and he too soon departed to take part in a U.S. tour with Jimmy Cliff. In his stead came founding Black Uhuru member Rudolph "Garth" Dennis. Such dramatic changes in personnel usually heralds the rapid decline of a group, but surprisingly enough, the Wailing Souls were now about to enter their strongest era. The new group joined forces with producer JoJo Hookim at his Channel One studio, and backed by Sly & Robbie's Revolutionaries proceeded to cut classic song after classic song. "Jah Give Us Life," a re-recorded version of "Fire Coal Man," "Back Biter," "Things and Time" (also re-recordings of old songs, but with new titles attached), and "War" featuring DJ Ranking Trevor, all impacted across the Jamaican roots scene. Across the Atlantic, the Ulster punk band Stiff Little Finger were as taken by the music as fans in Jamaica, and recorded their own phenomenal version of "Fire Coal Man, helping further excite interest in the group abroad. In 1984, the British label Empire gathered up many of the group's masterful singles with Hookim on the compilation The Best Of.
By 1977, the Wailing Souls were ready to have a go running their own record label, which they named Massive. It was a prescient moniker and their debut release, the seminal "Bredda Gravalicious," was a smash hit and remains a firm favorite to this day. Their follow-up, "Feel the Spirit," another one of their old Studio One cuts given new life, did equally as well. The success of these two singles prompted Island Records to pick up world rights to the group's debut album, 1979's Wild Suspense. (In reality, their eponymous Studio One album was their first, and was released three years earlier, but this was the group's first album of new material.) The record boasts some of the heaviest roots of the Wailing Souls' career, and along with the two singles, it also features the equally classic "Very Well." Even though Massive had proved just that, the quartet continued recording for other labels. They rejoined Sly & Robbie at their Taxi label for the sublime "Sugar Plum Plum" and "Old Broom," both of which were huge hits. With Sly & Robbie and their Roots Radics in tow, the Wailing Souls returned to Channel One, and cut a stream of exceptional singles for producer Junjo Lawes. The infectious "Firehouse Rock," the exquisite harmonies of "See Baba Joe," and the mighty "Kingdom Rise Kingdom Fall," followed, as the group released a stream of hits across 1980 and into 1981. All three of these singles featured on the Wailing Souls' next album, the magnificent Firehouse Rock. Produced by Lawes, ignited by the Roots Radics, and mixed by Scientist, the set remains a high water mark of the roots age, with the band's tough rhythms perfectly aligned with the singer's own soulful delivery. Their follow-up, 1982's Inchpinchers, is nearly as good, although its dancehall vibes didn't always sit well with the purer roots crowd. In the interim, the group also released Wailing, and cut a number of other notable singles with other producers, including such hits as "Who No Waan Come" and "Rude Boy Say Him Bad."
In 1981, the Wailing Souls were on the road, and embarked on a short tour of California, so enjoying the experience, they spent most of the next three years in the States. However, they continued releasing singles, several of them self-productions, and a number were cut in collaboration with DJs, including "Take We Back," which saw them reunite with Ranking Trevor, and "Take a Taste," with Ringo. During this period, the group also released two albums, 1983's On the Rocks and the following year's Stranded. And for a moment, they were indeed stranded. Garth Dennis had now elected to reunite with his old band Black Uhuru, and Haye refused to leave L.A. Matthews and McDonald were not finished yet, however. They returned to Jamaica, and continued the group as a duo. The now-shrunken Wailing Souls joined up with producer Delroy Wright for 1986's On the Line, an apt title, considering the situation. It was evident that the pair had yet to find their footing, but their follow-up, Kingston 14, found them back on track, abetted by yet another reunion with Sly & Robbie, who provided sublime rhythms. And if there were doubts, they were put to rest with "Full Moon," another smash hit. In 1988, the Wailing Souls recorded a new album, again in conjunction with Sly & Robbie, along with a slew of seminal session men and overseen by Wright. However, the record was not released at the time. Their next full-length, the fabulous Stormy Night, would not appear until the following year, and found the duo now working with King Jammy. Amazingly, Stormy Night was never given a Jamaican release, although it created quite a stir around the rest of the world. Even odder, the recordings didn't spawn a sole hit single.
Understandably, the Wailing Souls were losing patience. They'd wasted a year recording an album that never saw release, and now their new record was unable to even find a Jamaican label willing to put it out. In truth, the hits were drying up, although the group's work remained as strong as ever, the vocals as heartfelt, and harmonies as exquisite as they'd always been. Styles had changed, and at home, interest had flagged. By 1991, Matthews and McDonald had made the momentous decision to quit Jamaica, and returned to the States. And there, the previously unreleased Reggae Ina Firehouse was finally mashing up the dancefloor. It might have arrived three years late, but there was no disguising the record's mastery. Even so, the duo were unhappy at its unexpected and tardy arrival, but they shouldn't have been. The album is filled with phenomenal songs, fabulous roots music, and some of the pair's best vocals. However, the Wailing Souls did have some reason for concern, as they were about to embark on a musical journey that would make their old roots fans mouths drop. Recruiting vocalist Maisha, the trio inked a deal with the Sony label's Chaos subsidiary and began work on a new album. Along for the ride was a club's worth of guest musicians, backing vocalists and even a pair of DJs (including U-Roy). The result, 1992's All Over the World, deservedly earned the group a Grammy nomination, and is a genre buster extraordinaire. Running from deep roots to funk, R&B to country, it was enough to give older rastas a heart attack. But the the Wailing Souls were unrepentant, and continued on their merry way. They followed up with the Live On live set, which did not live up to Sony's expectations, but there was little time for tears, and the group happily made their way for the indie labels. Tension arrived in 1997, with Psychedelic Souls quickly following the next year. The latter again boasts Sly & Robbie's tough rhythms, and finds the group venturing ever deeper into the rock world. The pair stayed on board for 2000's Equality, which returned Wailing Soul to their rootsiest roots, yet is shot through with a modern electronic sound and American stylings. The duo remain defiant, refusing to play the role of elder statesmen; they've remained forward looking, and over time their biting cultural lyrics have not softened an iota. The Wailing Souls continue to tour, and we can expect more intriguing releases guaranteed to mix-up the music and shake the dancefloors.